The Dirt Patch Watering Hole
by Keith Crews


Ole Man Goober emerges from Handyman's Hardware into the New Mexico heat with a length of copper tubing in one calloused hand, and a paper bag full of adjustable water-heater clamps in the other. He stops in the middle of a pothole-littered parking lot next to the ‘Black and Decker Skill Saw Sale' sign, which creaks on a spring-mounted base in sand-driven wind. Faded blue eyes surrounded by a murder of crows feet study the sky, and a face that has seen an excessive amount of desert sun in its sixty-seven years of living in Dirt Patch can tell something's brewing.

Dirt patch is a small town, which doesn't offer much in the area of jobs, at least not since the copper mine shut down close to ten years ago. The only thing the town is really good for now is being a truck stop between major metropolises, and even then it isn't much of one at that. Most folks around these parts enjoy social assistance for a living, or what few jobs they can scratch out of the desert sand in places like Safe Way Groceries, The Dirt Patch Bijou, Kelsey's Doughnut Shop, and the store Ole Goober himself has just exited, Handyman's Hardware.

"Storms a coming," mutters Goober, with an expression that further deepens withered laugh lines that have lost their humor decades ago. "He don't like the storms none. Maybe it'll let up after dark. Then He'll be as chipper as a robin in May. Yes sir E Bob, He will at that."

"Hey Goober! Who you talking to now? Elvis!"

Goober lowers his head and watches as a group of Abe Lincoln Elementary students run past, poking fun at him. He isn't sure which one of them has said it, but he is pretty sure it is Billy Parker, Dirt Patch's equivalent to a criminal Dennis The Menace. Little brats!

"Don't you never mind who I be talking to boy!" shouts Goober, shaking a crinkled bag of clamps. "You just get on a moving on home you hear me! Less'n I tell your mudder and fadder on ya!"

Children erupt in laughter, and run off down the street, singing a limerick that too many people in town know all too well:

"There once was a man named Goober,
who walked around in a stupor,
got a sponge for a brain,
which he flushed down the drain,
poor old miserable Goober!"

"Damn smart-ass kids," grumbles Goober, while shuffling along an avenue of sun-baked cars, fire hydrants, and barely surviving mom-and-pop shops. "Poor upbringing, that's what it is. He'd agree with that. Yes He'd surely freaking would."

Unbeknownst to Goober, a black-and-white county police cruiser, carrying Dirt Patch's latest addition to its small law-enforcement team, a woman by the name of Officer Abigail Cantrell, follows just behind him as he saunters up a sweltering sidewalk.

Abby (as she is called by most people, except for her mother who insists on using Abby's full christened name) is an attractive redhead of twenty-six years, never married. Not that she's ever been asked before. In fact, until only two weeks ago, she'd been betrothed to one Mitch Denison, attorney at law. The two parted amicably, citing differing career aspirations as the reason for the break, but the crux of the matter is anything but. Truth is Abby had fallen out of love with over-controlling, lousy-in-the-sack, penny-pinching Mitch. And so under the guise of saving a male ego, a lie better suggesting a joint decision rather than that of her unilateral action is offered to anyone who cares to listen.

And so here she is, Officer Cantrell, born and raised in Dirt Patch, tailing an old man whose mean-spirited limerick her childhood friends used to sing and skip rope to during recess.

Poor soul thinks compassion, as she continues to eye a geriatric goblin in faded green work pants, a black un-tucked shirt, and carrying an armful of moonshine apparatuses. Out to the station you go. A glance in the rearview mirror spies her own blue eyes and cute face of delicate features. It has to be a hundred and one out today. I should give the old guy a lift home. The badge of office looks to the items he's transporting. Oh, by the way, you do know what that stuff in his hands is for, don't you? A sigh. Yeah, but he never sells to anybody. Suddenly mommy Cantrell's holier-than-thou voice pipes up. ‘It's still against the law, Abigail,' Yes mom, I know that. But I didn't take this job to shake down the mentally ill. ‘It's not shaking him down, Abigail – it's helping him,' assures mommy Cantrell. Is it?

Abby stops the car and steps out of air-conditioned luxury into the sting of a Nevada sun. Reaching back into the cruiser, she takes up a baton, and slips it into the belt, which hangs around a body shaped by committed gym time.

"Excuse me…" You were going to say Goober, weren't you? "Excuse me, Mr. Cooper." Alton Cooper isn't it? Yes, that's it.

Turning around, Goober watches the towering figure of Officer Cantrell approach him. She stops an arm's length away and adjusts a black hat over her short, shiny red hair.

"Yes?" asks Goober, with old lungs that find hot air thin and elusive. Going to the poky, Ole Goob. Even the law's gotta take a kick at the old man, don't it. He wouldn't be pleased. No sir E Bob. Not one bit.

"I was wondering if I could offer you a lift, sir?" asks a feminine smile shaped with compassion.

Narrow eyes study her, and the idling cruiser. His aching back thinks the offer sure sounds sweet, not too mention the burlap lungs struggling for O2 inside his laboring chest. "No thank you, Ms. I'm fine," replies pride.

"Please, Mr. Cooper," says Abby in a soft voice. "I'd like to talk with you, if I may?"

She seems nice, don't she? She kinda looks familiar too? A flashbulb lights up a picture of a little girl giving him free lemonade on a day much like this one years ago. It's her – all grown up now – that's it. Not a bad kid either, was she? He'd like that. Yes sir E Bob, He would at that. Goober clutches his purchase closer, and cautiously nods.

The cruiser rolls beyond the city limits, past the abandoned Texaco station, and the out-of-business Pit Well Mining Equipment Warehouse. And after three minutes into the fifty-five mile-an-hour interstate drive, the squad car finally reaches Ole Goober's desert castle, and what's been his home for more than twenty years.

The car stops in front of a dusty two-room shack that's a run-down truck weigh-in station. Popular rumor recalls that Ole Goober used to work for Interstate Scale Regulation until it closed and moved eighty miles up the highway thirty years ago. It's also been said that the State had offered him a job with the new weigh-in depot, but he'd said no. He had also added with a third-person reference that, ‘He wouldn't understand that one bit. No sir E Bob. Not at all.'

Everyone in town figured Ole Goober had finally weighed-in one too many tractor-trailers, and that his own highway limitation had been exceeded by about a dozen tons. Some blamed the breakdown on the heat, others on the isolation, but most believed it was the tart old shine that goober is known to stir up in high-proof, triple-X brown jugs, of hillbilly white lightning that really pushed him over the edge.

"Please, would you like to come in?" asks Goober, sliding out of the back seat with his ancient bones grinding inside their dry joints.

"Yes, as a matter of fact I would," replies Abby, stepping out into the blast furnace of a day.

"Thank you," says Goober, gesturing for her to follow. "I don't get many visitors. That's except for Him that is."

A nod, and a smile. "Him?" ‘Mr. Imaginary friend, that's who, Abigail,' her mother's voice clucks. ‘He and Mr. Phantom should be locked up. Dirty old man. He's probably a sex pervert as well as a basket case. But forget him, Abigail. Why'd you leave Mitchell? He's such a nice boy.'

Looking back from a green-painted, peeling door is a wrinkled smile of cavity-riddled teeth. "Please, come in."

The interior is reflective of its owner. Dirty, old, and run down. The humidity is enough to jostle a person's sanity, and the floor is a grizzly gray of flaking concrete surrounded by a Tetris-puzzle of cracked cinder-block walls. On the back wall, next to a decrepit toilet, hangs a government regulatory policy with emergency contact numbers, and the financial-fine range for specific violations. A stained, beige corduroy coach rests up against another wall, and next to it is a red-vinyl recliner, with a magazine pouch full of Playboy and Hustler back issues. Beside this chair a mid-sized, brown Formica table supports an ecosystem of houseflies and Pizza Hut leavings. Scattered about the room are extinguished candles in various stages of melting.

The room is squalor, and everything to be expected -- that is, excluding one thing. Off to another wall, across from the spotted coach and porno-carrying armchair is a single, gray metal door. It is the kind of a door one would find in any office-building stairwell, except that this one has something strange written upon its slightly dented surface. Here, in crude, black-painted brushings read the words, ‘The Dirt Patch Watering Hole.'

"Would you like a seat?" offers Goober, setting his clamps and tubing on the floor beneath the regulatory poster.

Abby moves slowly about the room, trying not to appear too nosy. "No, thank you, Mr. Cooper."

"Not many folks round here calls me by that name," grunts Goober, partially out of breath. "Been years."

"Do you mind when people call you – Goober?"

"Nope, not really. Been so long now I can't rightly reckon if I ever did."

A casual glance at the metal door peaks curiosity. "Nice sign."

Goober nods. "It's what He'd like to call this here place."

"He?" ‘Come now, Abigail,' mommy's voice condescends. ‘People have been trying for years to find out who this dirty little man thinks he has been talking to. You don't actually think he's going to tell you now, do you?'

An unhealthy smile shapes thin lips, a smile so deranged that despite kiln-like temperatures it paints a thick coat of gooseflesh on Abby's skin.

"He'd like you," replies Goober. "You're not liken the others at all."

"Perhaps I might be able to meet him sometime?" ‘Come on, Abby. He's obviously delusional,' says mom's voice. ‘You don't actually think there is someone, do you?' No, but maybe it's someone from his past? ‘Playing mommy's little Sherlock Holmes now, are we?' No, just doing my job. ‘Your job is arresting people who break the law.' I know. ‘I don't think you do, Abigail.' He's harmless. ‘You know what's in that room, don't you my dear? Ole Goober's happy-go-miracle juicer – the Willy Wonka potato-skin refinery – his S-T-I-L-L!'

Dirty fingernails touch a dry bottom lip as Goober deliberates Abby's suggestion. "I don't rightly know how He'd be a feeling about that though. He can be a strange little fellow. Depends on the tonic mostly, I'd figure." Could she be the one?

"Tonic?" His rum, dumb Abby.

A clever smirk fits the corners of a disheveled mouth. "Ole Goober might be a bits crazy, missy, but he ain't stupid."

Abby nods. "I can see that, Mr. Cooper." Is he daring me? Does he know what I'm thinking? I've got to look in that room now. I have a duty to perform. "I'd like you to show me what's in there please sir." The baton taps on the door.

"Reckon it'd only be a matter of time before one of you came back here again, huh?" A shy smile conveys deeper meaning. "But you're not liken the rest, is you?"

What does he mean, came back here? Of course, it's as obvious as the spit polish on your high-sheen flatfoot shoes, Abby! You're not the only cop to have stopped here over the years. There must have been dozens who've walked in here. But why then has no one stopped him from making the shine? ‘He killed them!' mommy Abigail screeches. No, don't be foolish! No one's been murdered in Dirt Patch in twenty years, and even then it was a husband shooting his cheating wife, not a peace officer. Well, what's he mean then? Maybe I should call for backup? No, I'd look like a fool if all he's got in there is a blow doll, with a slick coat of KY jelly on its anatomically correct love canal! "Please sir – the door."

Goober shuffles over, places a well-worn hand on the door, and pushes ‘The Dirt Patch Watering Hole,' slowly open.

"Thank…" says Abby, unable to finish the rest of the sentence. What the hell is that?

Emerald green creeps out of the room on a carpet of dry ice like smoke, riding the hazy stale air of the weigh-in station like a haunted entity. Abby takes a step backwards with her nine-millimeter revolver drawn.

"Would you like a drink?" asks Goober.

Peeling eyes off the fog is Abby aiming a revolver at Goober. "Close the door now, sir!"

"But you ain't had nothing to drink yet," pouts Goober. "He'd like it if you'd just try a tasting of the shine, Ms. Abby Gale. Yes sir E Bob, He sure as rootin'-tootin' would!"

Vapor lurches further out of the door like a tiger's paw batting at prey. Abby stumbles back a step, the mist nipping at her spit-shine shoes, her gun dancing between Goober and the door. Call for backup, Abby! Call it in right now! "Mr. Cooper! You shut that door this instant or I'm placing you and He under arrest! Do you hear me?"

Bushy eyebrows hunch, and Goober's eyes are a perplexed question. "Missy, He wants to speak with you, yes sir E Bob He does. He'd ain't never done that with any of the others before." Is she the one?

Others? "Mr. Cooper!" ‘Run Abigail!'

The miasma of green leaps forward once again, except this time taking hold of Abby's ankles, and securing them in place. She glances down, pulling on feet that refuse to move. Oh God, it has me! How can it have me! It's only smoke, for heavens sake! But it has me, and it's not letting go! A cool tingle crawls up her legs, past her compartmental belt, and finally down her extended arms. She watches helplessly as this possession encapsulates the revolver in a puffy, unhealthy haze of diseased lime. Shoot Abby! SHOOT! The trigger clicks in a series of rapid empty responses. Oh God! I'm just like the others now! Me! Officer Cantrell caught inside Goober's world of downwardly trodden horrors!

"Mr. Cooper," says Abby in a voice that has ceased to be authoritative. "Please – help me?"

Goober's eyes ease with the sound of a genuine plea. "You know, no one's called me by name for years."

A tear stands on the edge of a deep-blue eye. "Yes – I know – you said before."

Goober raises his hand, and runs it through untidy hair, as if deliberating what to do next. "Tell me, missy. What's my – first name?"

Her smile is sad, and almost happy, because a good heart is about to be rewarded for its past deeds. "It's Alton. Your name is – Alton."

She's the one! A smile shines foul teeth that are not nearly so vile with the effort. "Yep – I reckon it is."

From within the ‘The Dirt Patch Watering Hole' a rustling sound and a figure stir. Abby turns her head in the direction of the motion that disturbs the sleeping haze of ill-shaded jade. Oh lord, what now?

Long, gray slimy fingers wiggle like sea worms inside the green corona blanketing the Watering Hole's interior. These four unearthly digits, tasting stale air with subtle flickers, are attached to a thin, pale arm that runs up to a smooth, frail shoulder. This junction is joined to a skinny length of leathery neck that is connected to a football of a head whose face shines like spring dew at dawn.

Terror regards an unnatural face with a thin, slit mouth, sleek jaw, and nothing for a nose. However, the more her repulsion gazes into large doe eyes of a creature that looks like a lost child, the more her fear subsides. What is it? ‘Shoot it, Abigail!' mommy Cantrell screeches. No! It's not evil it's – I don't know what it is!

Goober's voice brings Abby out of her trance. "I reckon you want some answers, I'd wager?"

Abby nods with a head that floats above olive smoke like a balloon resting atop a cloud. "Yes."

"I'm not so good at the story telling as He is," says Goober in a respectful tone toward a tiny being that continues to regard Abby with childlike concern. "What I do know, is you're not liken anyone else in town, that is."

For the first time since those fingers walked out of the door, Abby glances at Goober. Her revelation is that He is not insane, or evil, he is simply an old man who's been sitting on a huge secret for god knows how long. A secret so big, it would have driven most people bat-crappers.

"What – is it?"

"He ain't from these here parts, Missy Abby Gale – well perhaps it'd be better if'n He told you."

"It talks!" Of course it talks, Abby. It's an alien. A genuine Real McCoy ET. It can't be. No – then I suppose you're not wound up inside a St. Paddy's Day poltergeist, paralyzed like an Angie Dickinson wax-museum piece.

"Not liken you and I do," replies Goober, turning to his midget-sized friend with the expression of a concerned father. "Do you?"

Abby can see the soft, dark eyes of Goober. They narrow, as if focusing on something important. What's the creature doing?

Receiving an answer is like getting connected to a three-way telepathic conference call of an extraterrestrial Anytime Savings Plan. The cellular mind-link speaks with the alien's thoughts – thoughts both of strange worlds and local Dirt Patch landmarks. In a millisecond she understands everything. The creature's UFO crashing in the desert, Goober finding and caring for it all these years, the alien conveying to Goober it's dietary needs, which have to be brewed in a makeshift still. Not shine, not poison, but an alcoholic-based supplement that it needs to survive. She can see the other officers who have come to the Watering Hole over the years, discovering the creature, and then being turned away after having been induced with an amnesia from another concoction fermented in the still. Officers healthy, and no worse for wear except for a few less strategic, weeded-out memory cells.

But aside from all the historical information there is a question of hereditary, of passing on the responsibility of care. Abby knows intimately what is to be asked of her, that He really does need to speak with her. This ‘He' whose name is unpronounceable by the limited range of a human tongue.

"I – I don't know," says Abby, answering a question that's been asked of her highjacked thoughts.

‘I know the burden,' the alien transmits telepathically. ‘But my friend is not well. My friend who has sacrificed so much that I may live.'

Abby looks at Goober – Mr. Cooper. "Alton…"

Goober nods. "He knows people, Missy Abby Gale. Yes sir E Bob, He sure as shine do."

"This," says Abby, looking at ‘He,' with eyes soft and caring. They're asking you for help. "I don't know. I don't…"

‘It would not be for very long, ‘He' assures. ‘They will be coming for me.'

"They?" repeats Abby.

‘My people will be here in a couple of days to take me home. But I'm afraid that my protector, Mr. Cooper, has a very short time in which to live. He needs rest. It would just be for a little while.'

"Full of the cancer, Missy Abby Gale," grins Goober humbly. "Your being here at this time and place is fate, I'd reckon. You has to look after Him. You has to."

The emerald vapor eases down off of Abby's body, and back into the Watering Hole, a gesture of trust being offered by both Goober, and Him.

What do you think, Abby Gale? Abby replaces her gun and nods.

‘Thank you,' He extends.

"Thank you, Missy Abby Gale," says Goober.

A brief leave of absence from work is taken under the pretext of emotional issues involving a recently failed engagement to Mitch Macho. This break worries Mommy Cantrell about her daughter's condition, but Abby assures ‘Mother May I' that a few days in the mountains will set things right with her and the house again. (A bit of time to think, is her official story.)

And so sympathy has patted her on the back, and sent her on her way, but in actuality time from work and a doubting mother is really being spent in the company of a dying old man, and a creature from 3,000 light years away. She likes to think of this trip as space cancer camp, where the sipping sauce is genuine over-the-gums gut rot that only an ET and a local oddity can ingest.

During the days of caring for an unlikely duo, she receives a history lesson in close calls of being discovered as first-hand stories are reiterated around a percolating distillery. She also obtains a crash course in chemical engineering from an old man who is surprisingly thoughtful, and intelligent, as she tends the still like any common back-roads bootlegger. The intergalactic travels of a benevolent alien further sweeten her enlightenment – tales of species from distant stars and dimensions out beyond the backyard fence known as Pluto.

This once-in-a-lifetime experience slips past too quickly for Abby, as the equivalent of a 911-rescue unit finally arrives with a full pyrotechnics show on wing.

Thanks are given to an officer by the grateful, and an officer reciprocates their gratitude as well. After all, if only in words, she has experienced a universe never before known to anyone on her planet, except maybe Mr. Cooper. And so goodbye, as she watches a silver disk descend from a Nevada night sky and becomes a remote desert witness to an emotional reunion between Him and its long-awaited liberators. She watches Ole Goober, the infamous town lunatic, ascend the ship's gangway like a king enroute to a well-deserved destination, the stars. A place where this time ‘He' will take care of Goob like Goob has taken care of ‘He.'

The ship lights up like a psychedelic rainbow, and speeds off into a clear night, taking Him and Goober away to a cosmic NeverLand where cures for cancer are as common as respect toward old eccentric moonshiners from Dirt Patch, Nevada.

"Goodbye, Mr. Cooper," whispers Abby. "You're finally free."

As Abby drives away, a glance in the rearview mirror shows a weigh-in station, with a still, a regulatory poster, and the incredible things it has seen inside, burn to the ground.

Don't worry, Mr. Cooper, your secrets are safe with me. And as far as Dirt Patch is concerned, you died tonight. And as far as I'm concerned, you've just begun to live.



Story © 2003 by Keith Crews

Illustration © 2003 by Rick Shelton

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